Monday, 13 January 2014

Greta Garbo, Sherlock, and down-and-out like Flynn - Reviews #180

Here's some stuff I watched and read over the past couple of weeks. Let me know if I'm overselling it.

FILMS



One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961) - Wilder's second-to-last masterpiece - and Jimmy Cagney's penultimate picture - is a rapid-fire Cold War comedy that ranks as one of the funniest films ever made.

Caggers is a veteran Coca Cola executive, marooned in West Berlin, who's forced to call on every ounce of his resources - and every trick in the book - after he lets the boss's daughter (Pamela Tiffin) marry a card-carrying communist (Horst Buchholz).

After a slow but steady 15-minute set-up, a little light on laughs, it's just non-stop entertainment: clever jokes, silly jokes, Nazi jokes, Stalin sight gags, cross-dressing, satire, in-jokes and innuendo, with Cagney a whirlwind of chicanery, juggling crooked commissars, suspicious journos and a bum-wiggling secretary with an "ümlaut".

Back in his element after a decade of mostly misfires, the star effortlessly recaptures the Cagney of old, of Blonde Crazy, Jimmy the Gent and Torrid Zone. It's a performance so full of manic energy that he then had to lie down for 20 years, only re-emerging for 1981's Ragtime. He's supported by a fun and perpetually shouting Buchholz, and a little-known but faultless ensemble, from his matchlessly acerbic wife (Arlene Francis) - whose every utterance is a gem - to the effusive, impressionable none-more-Southern Tiffin, and a sidekick who claims he was too far underground to know what Hitler was up to (Hanns Lothar).

Lots of later filmmakers have tried to recapture the zany spirit of '30s and early '40s comedies, but few have succeeded. Since Wilder wrote most of the best - from Midnight to Ball of Fire - he's not paying homage, merely remembering, and this one's the true spiritual successor to the immortal Ninotchka, co-written by him and directed by his hero Ernst Lubitsch, with the same culture-clash comedy, and the same well-lubricated, well horny Russian emissaries.

Incidentally, while Wilder gave both capitalism and communism what for in Ninotchka (and in 1933 Cagney described Stalin as "the greatest man in the world"), here he sides quite clearly with the West, while loading the script with acidic references to Germany's recent past - a beautiful, almost saintly way to deal with the events that had so impacted upon his own life, his nuclear family having largely perished at Auschwitz.

Many actors and directors never retained or reclaimed the carefree sensibility of the '30s after the horrors of the war. Bomber pilot Jimmy Stewart swore off mere entertainments, immersing himself in murky Westerns. Comedy specialist George Stevens never made another after filming the liberation of the death camps. But after getting some of his angst and anger out with his moody 1948 film, A Foreign Affair, shot on the ravaged streets of Berlin, Wilder merely dug in and kept pitching, the political gags still flying, a film still a place where anything went and everything was good for a laugh.

His last masterpiece came nine years after this one: a butchered but remarkable riff on the Sherlock Holmes legend that was up there with the Brett adaptations as my favourite treatment of Conan Doyle's legendary detective... until Moffat and Gatiss went to work. (4)

Trivia note: The movie in-jokes here alone are worth the price of admission, with Cagney doing his grapefruit bit from The Public Enemy, Cagney doing Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (more of which below) and, best of all, a guy doing a Cagney impression at Cagney...!

***



The Man in the Iron Mask (James Whale, 1939) - A glossy, successful version of Dumas' timeless tale, very different in focus and feel to Doug Fairbanks' take on the story, The Iron Mask, but with the same Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel de Brulier appearing briefly his fourth time out) and that same classic closing shot.

Away from the realm of the star vehicle, the emphasis here is not on the ageing D'Artagnan - putting his life on the line for perhaps the last time - but on the title character, with Louis Hayward excelling in a dual role as the effete, pampered and murderous king, and his brave, empathetic, hounded brother - a finer man than he will ever be.

Hayward was one of the most talented and underrated leading men of his era, memorably playing The Saint as a smirking, hard-edged vigilante in the greatest ever incarnation of Leslie Charteris' hero, and he creates two diverse, contrasting and perfectly rounded characters here. Almost as soon as the film begins, you simply forget this is the same man, aided by the clarity of the writing, perhaps, but largely due to Hayward ability to craft two so distinctive and memorable personas. He really is terrific.

Dog-faced Pre-Code lothario Warren William is strangely cast as D'Artagnan, struggling to embody the character's great virtues (a challenge which Fairbanks met effortlessly), and the action climax is a bit of a letdown - aside from one impressive fall under some horses - but it's a slick, handsome and fast-moving movie, with a very good performance at its centre and some lovely, lushly-scored romantic scenes between Hayward and Joan Bennett. There are also a few striking images courtesy of Frankenstein director Whale, almost all of them within the confines of that jail cell, spotlighting that brutal, hideous mask. And, alas, there is one concession to Code-era "morality", as one character is punished for promiscuity by being quite inexplicably shot.

I still prefer The Iron Mask, a flawed but frequently fantastic rendering of the story which served as Fairbanks' emotional farewell to the silent screen, but this entertaining film - from Hollywood at its height - does a lot right, and shouldn't disappoint anyone, except perhaps those seeking some exciting action to go with their impressively rendered period drama. Indeed, its changes to Dumas's original proved so popular and effective that later adaptations often based themselves on this version of the story, rather than the celebrated novel. (3)

***



Garbo (Kevin Brownlow, 2005) - An insightful, respectful Brownlow documentary on one of the greats, perhaps overly concerned with her reclusiveness, but also well-researched, with a few interesting talking heads (plus Snore Vidal) and a wealth of exceptional footage: not only from her films, but also from her private life, her fabled 1949 screentest for a comeback that never transpired, and, most extraordinarily, two adverts she shot as a chunky, generously-eyebrowed teenager. The typically beautiful original score from frequent Brownlow collaborator Carl Davis is a massive bonus, and the montage of kisses - presumably inspired by Cinema Paradiso - is a jolt of sensual old movie joy. (3)

***



It's All True (Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn, 1993) - In 1942, Orson Welles was asked by the American government to make a film in Brazil as part of its "Good Neighbour" policy, which was designed to warm up relations with South America and so prevent the countries there from siding with the Axis. For reasons of office politics and global politics - not to mention Welles' unpredictability, obsessiveness, perfectionism, erratic work ethic, quest for authenticity and desire to fill his magnum opus with socialism - It's All True was never finished.

Fifty-one years later, his assistant director Dick Wilson put together this crucial, often magical and sometimes quite frustrating documentary, bearing the same name and containing some of the recently rediscovered footage. It begins with a hagiographic history of the project - ironing out Welles' various shortcomings and mistakes - and catches up with many of the impoverished Brazilians who became the stars of It's All True, or would have done, had it ever been completed.

For some reason, and this is the biggest frustration, the documentary contains mere snippets of My Friend Bonito - the Mexican pastoral piece directed by Norman Foster under Welles' specific instruction - but, most significantly, it climaxes with a lengthy reconstruction of Orson's pet project, Four Men on a Raft, telling the story of four penniless "jangaderos" who sailed the unimaginable journey from Fortaleza to Rio to demand the same civil rights as those in the cities.

This piece of silent poetry, shot in Welles' distinctive style but also bearing the influence of Robert Flaherty, couldn't be presented as the director intended - he was long dead, and the footage emerged from the vaults simply as dailies - and comes with an unsuitable, overbearing and overly modern musical score, but it is a priceless piece of film history nonetheless, containing its share of longueurs and non-professional woodenness, but also much breathtaking imagery. The sequence in which a sobbing child tackles an obstacle course of daily life, as she runs to report the body she's just found, is simply magical filmmaking, especially when one considers the clunky cameras Welles was having to use by the time his team pitched up in Fortaleza. And there's plenty more where that came from: boats silhouetted against a tempestuous sea, working-class Brazilians preparing meticulously for the daily catch, or marching endlessly by as they bury their dead, an emotional charge beneath the sheer beauty of the pictures.

As a chronicle of Welles' doomed South American project, the film only really works in conjunction with Simon Callow's biography - which properly contextualises and explains the myriad problems surrounding the shoot - but it does fill in a major blank in one of the most important and fascinating of all cinematic careers, sharing the almost mythic footage collected during surely the boldest and most ridiculously managed venture ever attempted by a Hollywood director. (3)

***



Brother Orchid (Lloyd Bacon, 1940) - Edward G. Robinson seemed to spend more time riffing playfully on his gangster image than actually defining it, but I suppose the immortal Little Caesar was all it really took.

This 1940 "crime comedy", though, isn't really what you'd expect, especially when you hear that Eddie G will be playing an underworld kingpin who hides out in a monastery. Perhaps the comic possibilities of the premise couldn't be fully exploited because Code-era movies were banned from anything that might be seen to lampoon religion, or perhaps the writers were just looking to do something different from a culture clash comedy - because this is certainly different.

Robinson's uncouth mobster returns from five years abroad - searching in vain for "real class", as he had in The Little Giant - to discover that he's yesterday's news, and his malevolent, duplicitous old partner, Humphrey Bogart, is now running the show. Our hero's ditsy dame (Ann Sothern) tries to smooth things out, but instead sets him up for a gangland slaying, which he only just manages to avoid, collapsing fortuitously in front of a monastery run by wise, gentle Donald Crisp.

The first half is a mixed bag, with Lloyd Bacon showing his usual lack of panache behind the camera, but there are a few good jokes, including Robinson's line about a postcard from a psychiatric hospital and Frank Orth's bit with the phone, while the scene in which our hero thinks he's been betrayed by his girl is unexpectedly moving. There's also a first-rate cast: not just the commanding star, Bogart, Sothern and Crisp, but also the likes of Ralph Belllamy, Allen Jenkins and Richard Lane.

But nothing really prepares you for what follows: a strange, heartfelt and earnest diversion - perhaps not entirely different from the ones that followed in On Dangerous Ground and Looper - featuring a couple of sly, funny gangster-out-of-water gags concerning "chumps" and "rewards", but rather more concerned with showing Robinson the error of his ways. While it's not entirely successful, providing neither the crime that we were promised, nor the comedy, it is agreeably unusual, perhaps due to the input of maverick associate producer Mark Hellinger. In fact, it's so good that even Bacon perks up, his obviousness offset by the rather lovely presentation of the scenes at the monastery.

Sometimes studio films of this era turn into something else entirely, merely because the writers were under such time pressure that they wrapped things up any way they could think of. With this one, based on a Collier's Magazine story, you get the impression that the redemptive tale into which it develops is the whole point, the cliched crime and comedy trappings are mere dressing for what the talented, often left-leaning screenwriters Earl Baldwin (Wild Boys of the Road) and Richard Connell (Meet John Doe) were trying to say. As such, it doesn't really compare with Robinson vehicles like Larceny, Inc. and A Slight Case of Murder, precisely because it isn't supposed to. It's so shot through with flaws that they may as welll have been coming out of a Tommy Gun, but this gentle movie is also more satisfying than many others of its era, because it has a proper message underlying its immediate story.

Bellamy's final scene should also astound anyone familiar with his '30s and '40s work... (3)

***



Forever Female (Irving Rapper, 1953) - A backstage comedy-drama, with a pinch of Dodsworth, centring on a vain, ageing actress still playing 29 (Ginger Rogers), her producer and ex-husband (Paul Douglas), the headstrong young man who wrote her latest play (William Holden) - and who makes her feel young - and the ambitious, pretentious newcomer (Pat Crowley) trying to nab her role, and her man.

The script by Casablanca scribes Julius and Philip Epstein is predictable and rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but also enjoyable and pretty witty, with a fair Broadway flavour and an approach to attraction, relationships and middle-age that's perhaps erratic but also unusually mature.

The three big-name leads are in good if not tip-top form. Rogers never delivered on the comic or dramatic potential of her performance in Stage Door, but she's more modulated than normal, and her closing scenes are good. Holden, ironically, is simply too old for his part, and has little chance to trade on either his seductive cynicism (Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17) or dynamic muscularity (Picnic), but he's solid enough, while Douglas - a heavy, jowly stage success - does his usual bit, as reliable as he is unexciting.

The long-forgotten Crowley gets a huge credit at the start and another siamese stand-alone one at the end, billing her as a "future Paramount star", going to prove William Goldman's acerbic adage that no-one in Hollywood knows anything. She holds her own in the prestigious company, offering a decent variation on Anne Baxter's All About Eve heroics, and won the Golden Globe for Best Newcomer, but her energetic, charismatic performance is less nuanced than it should be, her sudden and not entirely convincing graduation from peppy youngster to wise young woman reminiscent of - and directly analogous to - Phoebe Nicholls' pleasant but mannered turn in the TV version of Brideshead Revisited. (3)

***



Black Legion (Archie Mayo and Michael Curtiz, 1937) - This bristling social drama is still shocking - and relevant - today, as an American everyman (Humphrey Bogart) loses a promotion to a second-generation immigrant, and joins the Klan. Or rather a Klan-like group called the Black Legion, though that rebranding appears to have had more to do with legal caution than moral cowardice, as the KKK is explicitly namechecked in the film.

It's a B-movie, really, with some convenient plotting, a lot of thick characters and a bit more romantic padding than is really welcome - as sweet as it is - but the central story retains a haunting power, much of it from the chilling imagery: masked figures swathed in black laying waste to farms and drug stores, whipping half-stripped immigrants, or conducting initiation ceremonies in the dead of night, at gunpoint, in which new recruits sign away their souls.

Scorsese must have had Bogart's revolver-based posing in mind, too, when Travis Bickle enquired as to whether anybody was talking to him. And there's something sublime about the movie calling into action bland, benign character players like Charles Halton and Harry Hayden (you'll probably know the faces, if not the names) to play its more banal, inconspicuous fascists. A shame, then, that the film's transparent contention that its higher-ranking Legionnaires are motivated more by money than proper racism does seem to be rather missing the point.

Warner Bros was more socially conscious, and spent more time and effort speaking to immigrant audiences, than any other studio, and this film goes where MGM and the rest would never have dreamt. It has its fair share of wooden acting, trite scripting and even silliness, while its attack is more on vigilantism than intolerance, but the boldness of the concept endures - along with a few unforgettable moments. (2.5)

***



Two-Faced Woman (George Cukor, 1941) - Three words: Garbo career apocalypse.

The ethereal Swedish sufferer works absolute wonders in this most unlikely of settings - a screwball comedy containing barely a trace of her established image - but the film around her is utterly dire, with a brainless, bad-tempered script, a supporting cast simply going through the motions, and the laziest direction Cukor ever gave. Stung by the (understandably) vitriolic critical reception, the great Garbo would never make another picture.

For what it's worth (and that really is very little), Garbo plays a Swedish ski instructor whose new husband (Melvyn Douglas) either wants to return to New York so that he can work incredibly hard editing his magazine, or just doss around chatting up women - the film is incredibly confused on this point. So she creates a twin sister for herself, who is apparently going to be such a handful that Douglas will return to the arms of his wife. Only he falls for her. But also finds out almost immediately that it's a ruse. So it's a battle-of-the-sexes comedy in which the male is entirely in charge the whole time, which also makes absolutely no sense, and which is bookended by some of the unfunniest slapstick ever misguidedly committed to film.

Douglas is so half-arsed it's little wonder that he soon took his considerable talents to the stage and the political arena - the scene in which he conceitedly smirks whilst hoodwinking her on the phone seems to sum up what he thought of the role - and the likes of Ruth Gordon, Roland Young and Constance Bennett look similarly embarrassed to be associated with something so abysmally conceived.

Somehow, despite all that, Garbo gives one of her most charming and delightful performances, following up her comic debut in Ninotchka with an altogether different characterisation: vivacious yet tormented, full of life, fun and flirtation, but with a heartbreakingly melancholy undercurrent. It would be the last time audiences would ever see her: Sweden's greatest cinematic export vanishing from sight for all time; well, except for to clomp around the streets of Manhattan in a huge hat and sunglasses for 50 years, the "hermit about town". (2)

***


These probably weren't that much use in the end.

*A FEW SPOILERS*
Tarzan Escapes (Richard Thorpe and John Farrow, 1936)
- A film that's better known for what it doesn't contain than what it does, its notorious "vampire bats" sequence being excised after previews as it was deemed too frightening for audiences - and later lost (though some fans report seeing it in the '60s). As such, the characters climactically travel into a cave and emerge bloodied and beaten for no discernable reason, which I think we can file under "continuity error". Ironically, the whole film had already been completely repatterned by MGM after the 1935 cut, Tarzan Returns, was said to lack a central menace. Make your mind up, fellas.

As it exists today, Tarzan Escapes contains the usual mix of staggering racism, breathtaking colonial arrogance, incoherent philosophising and haplessly incorporated location footage, partially rescued - as ever - by some lively mythmaking and the megawatt charisma of Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane).

Plummy Benita Hume idiotically provokes a lioness, who is then shot dead - nice work, moron - with the travelling party doing nothing to atone, while black characters plummet to their death only for their civilised overlords to remark: "That was a close one." Indeed, the tribal inhabitants of Tarzan's perilous paradise exist only to be slaughtered, so that we, the viewer, are aware some white guy might be in a spot of danger - which, of course, they never are.

The film cleverly keeps Tarz off screen - aside from a couple of aaaheehaaaeeeaaaahs - for a good 20 minutes, then introduces him unexpectedly with a pip of a reveal, the camera swooping backwards to show his imposing frame in the upper reaches of a jungle tree. There's also a killer PoV shot of Tarzan kissing a very horny Jane, cutting to a flower floating in an inky lake that's very artily done, but the film in its entirety is an almost plotless inconsequence, its small snippets of story merely rehashed from its two predecessors, and coming out as dull domestic drama.

Jane's jungle house is impossible to take seriously in light of the excoriating Me Cheeta, James Lever's "autobiography" of the simian performer, while, perhaps most damagingly, Herbert Mundin provides some of the unfunniest, most overbearing comic relief I've ever seen - aside from his final scene - even if surprisingly effective when asked to play it straight. Had the whole production hadn't been so appallingly tortuous - going through three directors, including O'Sullivan's husband, John Farrow - you could almost accuse the film of being very, very lazy. As it is, it's perhaps just notably lacking in inspiration.

Then with 15 minutes left, it finally finds a bit of rhythm: Tarzan's escape is good fun, the swampy, foggy cave into which he leads his gang is overloaded with proto-noirish atmosphere - as man-eating lizards skulk around, gobbling black people - and the punchline to the sequence is superbly conceived. What it's really crying out for, though, is a topper: something to erase the tedium of the preceding 70 minutes and make it all worthwhile. You know, like vampire bats. (2)

***

BOOKS



Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre (2007) - You may remember this as the book that everyone was buying for everyone else (and particularly their dads) six Christmases ago. I gave it to my brother, but only just got around to borrowing it. It's the superb, ridiculous true story of Eddie Chapman, the North Eastern safecracker, womaniser and all-round Jack-the-lad who managed to get out of a Jersey prison by offering to spy on Britain for the Nazi occupiers... then turned double-agent under the guidance of spymasters supreme Tar Robertson, John Masterson, and his handler, Ronnie Reed. Barely a paragraph passes without some remarkable or hilarious detail, from fervent Nazi Walter Praetorius's obsession with Morris dancing, to the German agent who blew his cover in Britain by paying £10 and six shillings for a train ticket costing "10 and six". Chapman emerges as a fascinating character, his life the stuff of fiction, whose motives were often murky but who was transformed by that most appalling of creations - war - into a man of conscience. Meticulously assembled and written with the lightest of touches, it's one of the most enjoyable factual books I've read in an age. Highly recommended. (4)

***



My Wicked, Wicked Ways by Errol Flynn and Earl Conrad (1959) - Flynn's epic, notorious (and ghost-written) final statement is a patchwork of lies, fantasy and perhaps even a few things that actually happened, underscored by an obsession with sex that borders on the hysterical. It's the heartbreaking climactic third, though, that shifts it from a rollicking good read to something timeless, shot through as it is with sadness and loneliness, the spectre of addiction dominating. In addition to countless tall tales about his death-defying escapades, a false murder confession and some troubling sexual politics - Flynn and his aide lurching from one topic to the next with little interest in structure but a killer turn of phrase - there's an extraordinary amount in the book about the meaning and purpose of existence, somewhat at odds with the image of its (purported) author as a brainless carouser. But, as he so forcefully argues, he is as contradictory as any man, or indeed, as all of them. (3.5)

***



See You at the Movies by Melvyn Douglas and Tom Arthur (1986) - A wise, intimate autobiography with a rather misleading title, since the suave leading man turned heavyweight character player is so much more enamoured of his stage work than the featherweight Hollywood efforts that made his name. There are a few extremely insightful pen portraits of stars like Joan Crawford and Cary Grant, but Douglas spends more time - and energy - on the art of acting, the politics of the period, and his relationship with his beloved wife, Helen Gahagan Douglas. He's self-critical, frequently self-effacing - undercutting seriousness with sarcasm in the most unexpected places - and occasionally self-satisfied. He's also a charming companion in this, his twilight, with an irredeemable fondness for stories in which he behaves arrogantly and then trips over: pride coming before a quite literal fall. (3.5)

***

TV



Sherlock (Season 3, 2013) - Still the best thing on TV, perfectly balancing humour, sentiment and suspense, and provoking one of the most tedious, unconvincing backlashes in living memory. There's nothing here to touch the Season 2 finale, but then there's little else I've ever seen to touch the Season 2 finale. The first episode perhaps missteps by reuniting John and Sherlock in a comic, rather than a heartfelt manner, a few of the one-off supporting characters (the train nerd, the women on the online forum) have a case of the woodens, and there isn't always that much detecting going on, but those are infinitesimal quibbles with a truly remarkable programme - one of those works of dramatic art that exalts you, then leaves you bereft as the credits roll. The season finale, His Last Vow, is simply gobsmacking. Face-licking too, at one point. (4)

***



Veep (Season 1, 2012) - Armando Iannucci and Simon Blackwell's attempt to transfer their profound, profanity-laced brand of political satire to the US is a complete and staggering success, the unmistakable feel of their work remaining gloriously untouched, albeit with a touch of Parks and Rec sweetness smuggled in. Cracking ensemble too. I loved it. (4)

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